Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Perfect Source

          One of my favorite assignments to do with undergraduate researchers is a short paper about their dream source. As students begin tinkering with a line of inquiry, I ask them to imagine the best possible source they could find to help support their argument: a classified document hidden in a storage facility somewhere in Utah, the personal diary of their author, a director’s documentary about his own directing and editing choices on a given film, the direct feed from an alien monitoring station whose transcript of the events has suddenly and inexplicably landed on their kitchen counter, or any number of other outrageous artifacts. I ask the students to write a short essay describing this artifact, detailing what they would inevitably find in their treasure-trove, how they might begin to incorporate those findings into something like a central claim or argument, and finally, what sources they will expect to discover over the term that will begin to guide them towards the discoveries they would have found if, in fact, research were a tidy and perfect task.        
I was thinking about this assignment on my run this morning - both because I have been obsessing over the envoi as a peculiar form of poetry and because I was trying to drown out the sound of a BBC interview with a torture apologist coming through my earbuds. I was once under some delusion that the envoi might be a perfect source for the re-articulation of friendship at the turn of the fourteenth century. The envoi is, after all, very much like a short letter one might write to a close acquaintance. The form is flexible enough to address serious topics as well as playful ones; their brevity allows for some degree of poetic play; and most importantly, their content often suggests an ease of familiarity between author and audience such that modern readers often approach the envoi as a small piece to a puzzle whose full image has been lost to history. Of course, having beaten my head against a wall (sometimes quite literally but more often against piles of books than walls) for nearly two years thinking about one envoi in particular, Geoffrey Chaucer's "Envoy to Scogan," I have long since abandoned any notion that the envoi could be a perfect source or even all that helpful at re-articulating our contemporary understanding of medieval friendships.  
          As the apologist continued his defense of abominations, I began to think through the traditional list of testaments to friendship: treatises on the topic, letter collections, elegies, monuments, idealized fictions. My authors have not left friendship in these forms. And perhaps this is good thing - else I might not have a dissertation project at all. I finished my run thinking about Petrarch's letters and how wonderful it would be to write a mock letter from Chaucer to Gower, or from Hoccleve to Chaucer, and to carry out the assignment I have so often asked my students to perform. I wrote this post instead - I am not quite ready to enter the world of late medieval fan fic. But I have seen from my students' works how some trace of this perfect source that never existed remains to be called forth and collated. And I will return to the messy task of research, knowing full well that it does not permit simply ignoring the possibility of the perfect source - whether it exists only in the mind of the researcher or is actually published from the redacted writings of a man who was illegally imprisoned and tortured for more than a decade.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

From Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours

Offered without comment from Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours (Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy):
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Monday, October 6, 2014


Over the weekend, medievalists were asked to Tweet their top five medievalist feminists. It is unclear to me what started the trend on Sunday morning, but by the end of the day my Twitter Feed was full of the reminders of all of the brilliant women who have changed and continue to shape the field of medieval studies across academic disciplines. A selection of the Tweets can be found on Storify now, but the celebration is continuing to unfold under the hashtag #MedFemList.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Yesterday's Conversation

Me: Alexa, do you know what day today is?
Alexa (Excitedly throwing her arms in the air.):  Four days until school starts!
Me: No, silly. It's momma's birthday!
Alexa (Puzzled): It's the 17th?
Me: Yep.
Alexa (Excitedly throwing her arms in the air.): Three days until school starts!
Me (Laughing): Go tell your mother, Happy Birthday.

End Scene.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

CFP for 50th ICMS at Kalamazoo, 2015: Love Thy Neighbor?

Love Thy Neighbor?

Co-organized by Travis Neel and Richard Godden

Whether as a figure of intimate proximity, moral obligation, psychoanalytic anxiety, or a metaphor for a literary history that eschews the genealogical, the medieval neighbor has long lurked on the margins of medieval scholarship. Recently, Slavoj Zizek, Eric Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard have interrogated the uncanniness that the neighbor introduces into the social field, inserting neighbor-love into conversations in political theology as discussed by Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben. In Medieval Studies, Aranye Fradenburg and George Edmundson have suggested a number of varied, challenging, and exigent ways in which the field of medieval studies can take up and complicate the injunction to love thy neighbor in medieval England.  While the figure of the medieval neighbor suggests the ways in which a medieval community might be constituted, delimited, defined, and defended, the neighbor is also a reminder of the danger, aggressivity, and violence inherent in establishing communities. Although the neighbor might stand surety, serve as a witness, be most likely to enter into a trothplight, or offer mutual aid and support in a time of need, the neighbor was also a figure of the uncanny: just as likely to appear in the assize of nuisance, to commit murder, to discover a corpse, or to threaten, violate, or usurp an individual’s person, family, or property.

This special session invites papers examining the status of and discourses around medieval neighbors, neighborliness, and neighbor-love. We solicit papers from all disciplines and national traditions. Questions to consider may include but are certainly not limited to: 
Who was considered a neighbor? 
What degree of proximity, care, or relationality was required to be a neighbor? 
What were the legal obligations mandating relations among neighbors?
How far did the injunction to love thy neighbor extend? 
To what extent did the language of neighbor-love extend to foreigners and enemies or to figures of cultural, religious, and embodied difference? 
What discourses were mobilized to promote, spread, and also constrain the love for and of the neighbor?

Please send abstracts of 200-250 words to Travis Neel (neel.30@osu.edu) and to Richard Godden (rick.godden@gmail.com) with “Medieval Neighbor” in the subject line no later than Sept. 15, 2014.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Tolkien at OSU, February 20-21, 2015!

Mark your calendars for two-days of Tolkien at the Ohio Union on The Ohio State University campus in Columbus! Following the success of last year's Game of Thrones conference, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) is launching another inquiry into the relationships between popular culture and the deep past, this time focusing on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I have received unofficial word in my capacity at the CMRS that the Ohio Union has been booked for Friday and Saturday, February 20th and 21st, 2015. We are in the pre-pre-planning stages for the event right now, but the overarching goals will be similar to last year's conference: to nest an academic conference within a larger event that recognizes, celebrates, and revels in the place of the medieval in the contemporary world.

There is still some debate over whether the conference will address Tolkien's oeuvre more broadly, or whether the conference will focus more specifically on the Hobbit and attempt to draw on the appeal of Peter Jackson's film franchise. Nevertheless, I would love to hear from folks about what they would like to see, do, perform, present on, or help organize for the February conference. We are entertaining ideas for the academic portion of the conference as well as activities that might draw in non-academics of all ages.

Again, this all remains unofficial at the moment. There is some chance that I will be far less involved in the planning of this year's event than my predecessors were in the organization of last year's conference. But anyone who knows me knows well that I will have some no-small part in the conference as the date draws closer. To that end, please feel free to use the blog as a sounding board for ideas. As information becomes official, I will be sure that it finds its way onto the blog as well. In the meantime, feel free to follow the OSU Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies on Facebook or visit the homepage at cmrs.osu.edu.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Of the Wise and the Foolish Knights

     The following is an abridged translation of the Tale of Emperor Folliculus, or The Wise and the Foolish Knights, which appears in a number of English versions of the Gesta Romanorum. I am using Sidney J.H. Herrtages' edition for the Early English Text Society (EETS, ES 33, 1962), which draws this tale from BL MS Harley 7333.(1) I am translating the story so that it is marked for my own purposes (for reasons that anyone with any familiarity about my research interests will readily see), but I also think it is a fine tale to share more broadly. I am not yet ready to offer any kind of thorough response to it, but I would say that what struck me on my first reading was how seamlessly the moralitas moves to an allegorical interpretation of the tale without any comment on the elements of friendship, trothplight, affect, or law present in the literal level of the story.
The Beginning of the Nun's Priest's Tale in Harley 7333.
Image taken from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
     Folliculus was a wise Emperor, who reigned in the City of Rome. He made a worthy tower in the East, into which he put all of his treasure and precious jewels. The way toward this city was stony, thorny, and scroggy. Three armed knights were on the path to this city, and they were charged with fighting whomever should try to enter that city. Folliculus made a proclamation that if any man would go the way to that city, overcome his knights, and enter into the city, he would have an abundance of riches and jewels of all kinds.
     In the north Folliculus established another city, in which there was perpetual pain as well as all manner of jewels. The way to this city was fair, sweat to smell, and delicious to go into. Three knights were on the path to this city, and they were charged with refreshing, resting, and being hospitable to the travelers along this path.(2) Folliculus made a proclamation that if any man would go the way to that city and enter into it, he would be bound hand and foot and cast into prison, where he would wait until the coming of the justice in order to stand for judgment.(3)
     Now, in that time there dwelt two knights, named Jonathas and Pirius. Jonathas was a wise man, and Pirius was a fool, but there was great love between them. When Jonathas heard news that the emperor had established a city full of treasure promised to anyone who would enter into it, he suggested to his friend that that they travel there. Pirius agreed that it was good counsel. "If you are willing to do as I counsel," said Jonathas, "let me drink your blood and you drink mine as a token that neither of us will forsake the other, in well or woe." To this, Pirius agreed. And so they let blood, and each drank of the other's, and they were on their way.
    After three days of travel, they arrived at a fork in the road. One path was stony and thorny; the other path was specious and fair, set about with lilies and roses. Then, the wise man spoke, "Look. Here are two ways. Nevertheless, if we go by this stony and scroggy way, it shall lead us to the plenteous city that we desire."
     "Sir," said the other knight. "I have great marvel of you, for I trust my eyes more than your words. I see well - and so may you - that this way is stony and uneasy to go on. Plus, I have heard it said that there are three armed men on this path that will turn us around or fight with us if we go that way. Therefore, I'll have you know that I will go this other way, but not that way."
     "Truly," replied Jonathas, "if we go that way, we shall be led into the city in the North, where there is no mercy but only great sorrow and grief to all that enter."
     "Yeah, yeah," said the fool. "This that I see openly will I trust more than such stories."
     Then spake the wise man, "Since I drank your blood in a token of friendship, in truth, I would not let you go alone - regardless of what may happen to me in a time to come."
     So these two knights went forth on the easy path. And soon three knights met with them, received them worshipfully, and served them for a night. In the morning, the two knights arose and continued to travel toward the city in the North. As soon as hey entered the city, a bailiff(4) and the ministers of the Emperor met them and said, "Sirs, what are you doing in this city? For the laws of this place have long been known. Therefore, sirs, you must have the law."
     These men bound the wise knight and put him in prison. The foolish knight was cast in ditch. Afterwards the judge (domys-man) came to the city in order to preside over the breakers of the law. Among those that came before the judge, were the two knights. The wise man addressed the judge first saying, "Sir, I would like to make a complaint upon my fellow and say that he is the cause of my death. For when we were between the two paths - that is to say between the City of the East and this city - I told my fellow the peril of this place, but he said that he trusted his own eye more than he trusted me. And since he was my fellow, I would not let him go alone but came with him. Therefore, sir, I say that he is the cause of my death."
     Then, the foolish knight spoke saying, "Sir, he is guilty of my death, and I shall tell you why. You all know well that I am a fool and that he is a wise man. Therefore, he should not have so lightly believed in my foolishness. I would have gone the good way. For if he had only left in that direction, I surely would have followed him."
    Finally, the judge spoke, "Since you so lightly consented to his foolishness and since you, fool, would not follow the counsel of a wise man, I judge that you both be hanged."
     And so it happened indeed. And all men highly commended the judge that so rightfully gave the judgment.
A Latin manuscript containing the Gesta Romanorum compiled
in the middle of the fifteenth century, BL MS Harley 5369. Link.
{The Moral}
Sirs, the Emperor is to be understood as our Lord, Jesus Christ. The City in the East is the kingdom of heaven, in which is untold treasure. But the way to this city is thorny and sharp, requiring penance and tribulation on earth. For it is written: Arta et angusta est via que ducit ad vitam. That is to say, narrow and small is the way which leads to life (5). And on this path are three knights - which is to say the flesh, the world, and the devil - with whom you must fight and defeat before you come to heaven.
     By the City in the North you should understand as Hell. As it is written, Pandetur omne malum. This is to say, from the north shall be shown all evil (6). The path to this city, that is to Hell, is broad and is beset with many desirable things. Thus, many go this way. The three knights on this path should be understood as pride of life, covetousness of the eyes, and covetousness of the flesh. By these things, a man is greatly delighted for a time and led to the city of Hell that is full of sorrow.
    The two knights - the wise and the foolish - should be understood as the soul and the flesh. For the soul is wise, and the flesh is ever foolish and eager to do evil. These two are fellows, fastened together in well and in woe. The soul chooses the way of penance and may start the flesh along that path, but the foolish flesh, which has no mind for the perils that are to come, takes delight in the world and flees from the way of penance. Thus, in the time of death, the soul is bound in the prison of hell, and the flesh is cast in a ditch - which is to say a grave. And when the judge - our Lord - comes to judge, then the soul shall complain about the flesh and the flesh about the soul, but the judge - who will not be swayed by prayer or payment (7) - shall damn the soul for following the instigation of the flesh and damn the flesh for not obeying and trusting the soul. Therefore, let us study in order to tame our flesh that it might obey god and so that we might have everlasting life in bliss. God grant us that of his endless mercy! Qui cum patre, &c.

1)Harley 7333 will be familiar to many scholars of Middle English literature. It contains incomplete versions of Chaucer's Canterbury TalesParliament of Fowls, Mars and Venus, and Anelida, as well as the minor poems GentilesseTruth, and Complaint to his Purse. The manuscript also includes extracts from Gower's Confessio Amantis, a number of Lydgate's minor works and saint's lives, a prose Brut, and Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes. A nice account of Harley 7333 is given by Timothy Shonk, "BL MS Harley 7333: The 'Publication of Chaucer in the Rural Areas", Essays in Medieval Studies 15 (1998): 81-91). Link. The BL catalogue entry is also quite useful. Link.
2) The text reads "for to refresshe, and calle to gestenyng or to ostery, All that went by the wey."
3)"he shuld be bound hond and foote, and cast into prisone, and abide there unto the comynge of the Iustice, for to stond to his dome."
4)Cachepollys - The MED also suggests tax collector or minor officer of the law.
5) Matthew 7:14
6) Jeremiah 1:14. Herrtages' note suggests that this be read "pandetur [ab Aquilone] omne malum
7) mede